Friday, May 4, 2012

The Conspirator

Directed by Robert Redford.
2011. Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.
James McAvoy
Robin Wright
Kevin Kline
Tom Wilkinson
Evan Rachel Wood
Danny Huston
Justin Long
Colm Meaney
Norman Reedus
Alexis Bledel
Johnny Simmons

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a number of suspects are round up and tried for conspiracy to commit the crime. Among them is Mary Surratt (Wright) who runs a boarding house frequented by many of her co-defendants. Former Union officer Frederick Aiken (McAvoy) has just become an attorney. Reluctantly, he agrees to defend the widowed Mrs. Surratt at the request/command of his boss Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson). Courtroom drama based on a true story ensues.

Like most films centered around a trial, the acting has to be superb for it to have a chance. Thanks to its performers, The Conspirator has a chance. James McAvoy plays the male lead and does well. However, his is one of the weaker portrayals. Kevin Kline (as Sec. of War Edwin Stanton) and Tom Wilkinson both turn in outstanding work, as does Colm Meaney and Evan Rachel Wood. Justin Long is miscast but acquits himself well enough.

The true star here is Robin Wright as Surratt. She perfectly conveys a woman resigned to her fate. From the beginning, it appears she’ll be convicted whether or not she’s guilty. Her young lawyer feels that her best defense is incriminating her son, the lone suspect still unaccounted for. She vehemently opposes this course of action. This makes Aiken’s job even more difficult than it already is. Through it all, Wright rings true. She never hits a sour note. It’s a nuanced, subtle performance. It is not the type of big, showy portrayal we saw in The Help or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the latter of which includes more strong work from Wright. In my humble opinion it’s quietly one of 2011’s best.

As good as the acting is, it doesn’t completely save The Conspirator. The story drags and is a bit repetitive with a number of conversations about the “best defense.” Battle lines are a little too clearly drawn as the prosecution and the Sec. of War are clearly positioned as heartless villains who rig the trial only because the script requires them to be bad guys. History buffs, of course, may bristle at some of the other narrative liberties taken with known facts.

Even with its flaws, The Conspirator is a solid film that tells a good tale. During courtroom scenes and the ones where McAvoy and Wright interact the movie sizzles. It helps that we’re examining a piece of American history that hasn’t been rehashed for the screen a thousand times already. As such, it gives us something to ponder. What would we have done if we were in any of their shoes?

MY SCORE: 6.5/10

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